Most of the people who regularly read this blog will probably not have heard of Manipur. People of my age may remember Imphal, the capital of Manipur, where the British Indian Army held up the Japanese advance during the end of the Second World War. MSF asked me to visit their Manipur project to provide some support and assistance. Shortly after returning from home leave, I took a flight to Imphal International Airport.
To the north of the flight path, one can see the Himalayas, snow-capped peaks rising above the clouds. The plane flies over the massive Brahmaputra river. As this is the dry season, the river looks like the tangled mess of wiring behind my computer/printers/sound system in my study. But what struck me most about the flight was the Loktak Lake. It has islands of floating vegetation, where people live, grow crops and breed fish. The lake is surrounded by a flat plain fringed with ranges of mountains.
Manipur is at the junction of India and Myanmar. Following the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891, the state was annexed by the British, with a Maharaja as the nominal ruler under the Crown. Two years after Indian independence, Manipur became part of India, first as a Union Territory and then as a State in 1972. This decision was made without the approval of all the two dozen or so tribes, especially those living in the hills. For the past 50 years there has been some low level violent unrest by armed groups, such as United National Liberation Front (UNLA), the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the Communist Party. Sometimes these groups fight against each other, but usually they fight against the government and “Mainland India”. The proliferation of armed groups is reminiscent of the freedom fighters scene in the film, “Life of Brian”.
The national highway joining Manipur to the rest of India has been blockaded since 1st November 2016. The Indian Armed Forces escort convoys of 500 trucks into and out of Imphal, but people regularly get shot at and killed. Fuel, cooking gaz and some food items are in short supply as a result.
A driver picked me up at the airport and we drove south to the regional town of Churachandpur (everyone abbreviates this to CCpur or uses the traditional name, Lamka). There was a considerable military presence along the road, Police Commandos, Assam Rifles and Manipur Rifles. They all looked the same to me, but the driver could tell what unit they belonged to. The MSF vehicle has “Medical Team” written across the windscreen and we were not stopped. I would have had to get special permission to enter the state if I was not visiting under the auspices of MSF.
The project is very impressive, having evolved from supporting primary care to providing treatment for people living with HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C. We had planned to drive out to the “branch surgery” at Moreh, on the border with Myanmar to the east, but there was a “bandh” (a type of protest where all movement and commercial activity ceases). These are frequent in Manipur, but I was not clear how effective they were. Bandhs seem to inconvenience local people without seriously affecting the government.
The bandh was lifted and we drove out of the valley and up through the ranges of mountains to Moreh, where I stayed with the team for a few days. Moreh has a touch of the Wild West about it (but it is the easternmost part of India – “Wild East” doesn’t have the alliteration to sound right). It’s a border town, with lots of Burmese influence. There is a substantial Tamil population, who celebrated the Harvest Festival of Pongal on 14th January. That meant I was able to eat excellent South Indian food – a special dosa with tomato, coriander and sweet onion. This made a welcome change from the intestine stew I struggled with earlier. My next blog will show photographs of food in Manipur.
There was a “Battle of the Bands” between a Hindu temple and a mosque, which woke me up at 4.30am every morning. The music died down around 6:30am, just when it was time to get up. Because of the MSF curfew, we were confined to the team house by 5pm and I was in bed by 9pm most nights.
At weekends we walked in the foothills around CCpur, getting some exercise and fresh air. On Sundays, we saw lots of folks in their best clothes going to church. About half the population is Christian and everywhere you look there is a church of one denomination or another. On two hills overlooking the town there are Prayer Huts, about the size of a garden shed, where people can meditate in calm seclusion.
I really enjoyed my stay in Manipur. It was a refreshing change from Delhi, but I was glad to return to the smoke. I enjoy the food in Delhi, the cultural events and the lack of curfew. Instead of being woken by the muezzin’s call to prayer, here in Shalimar Bagh I wake up to the sound of blaring horns and dogs barking.